49ers Will Be Highly Competitive
March 21, 2004 at 12:00 AM
By Brett Pahler
In the last three months anyone who's anyone has written an article lambasting the 49ers for their apparently poor salary cap decisions, without feeling the least bit obligated to explain what they would have done differently. Every morning, I read about the misery that has descended upon Santa Clara, the doom and gloom, the chaos that's spread from management to the ranks and vice versa, the soap operas, the cheap Dr. York, the cap-clueless Donahue, the departing Walsh, the hapless Erickson—and I've had just about enough!
The 49ers will be a good football team in 2004. Hear that? Good! Will we make the playoffs? I don't know. But we will be a competitive team, hovering around 8-8. For all our apparent misery, who in the NFC scares you? Philadelphia, Carolina, Seattle, Dallas, and Green Bay are all probably better than us. Who else is significantly better than us? St. Louis? No. New Orleans? No. Tampa Bay and Washington? No. New York, Atlanta, Minnessota, Detroit, Chicago, and Arizona? No!
The list of departures is staggering, but must be considered in the context of the replacements. Barlow, whose 5.1 yards per carry ranked second among NFC running backs, takes over for Hearst. Webster, who missed most of last season, had already lost his starting job to Mike Rumph. Kwame Harris fills in for Derek Deese, and should begin to show the promise he showed at Stanford. Eric Johnson, a much faster tight end and more gifted receiver, returns from injury to replace Jed Weaver, the superior blocker. We will likely spend a 1st day draft pick on an offensive lineman who will replace Ron Stone. We will also spend a 1st day selection on a wide receiver who should be able to match Tai Streets' 47 receptions for 595 yards in his sleep. J.J. Stokes has caught more passes for more yards than that in a season, and he's effectively out of the league.
I don't want to hear any more about the supposed black hole left by these six players. They are all being replaced by younger players with more potential, many of whom are superior already.
On to the heavy hitters. Simple fact: Rattay outplayed Garcia last year. Rattay played better in his first three starts as a pro than Garcia has over the course of his career. Rattay's quarterback rating last year was the highest in the NFC. Sure, he'll encounter some bumps in his first season as a starter, but there's a reason why Garcia didn't make it to the NFL until he was 29 and why Rattay secured a roster spot right out of college.
And yes, of course we'll miss Owens' open-field stiff arms and instant acceleration, but we'll move on. Two years ago the Packers cut ties with their three best receivers, Antonio Freeman, Bill Schroeder, and Corey Bradford, all in the same season. I for one thought their receiving corps would be devastated. And yet, new players emerged. Donald Driver stepped up. They drafted Javon Walker. Robert Ferguson continued his improvement. They never missed a beat.
We may not have a Donald Driver hidden in the fold, but our receiving corps will play well. We moved the ball effectively in the Philadelphia game after Owens broke his collarbone. Brandon Lloyd and Cedric Wilson both showed a surprising ability to get open in the subsequent Seattle game, a game we would have won had Garcia thrown the ball with any accuracy whatsoever. They both will have improved this off-season. The coaching staff still believes that Arnaz Battle has a lot to offer. The 49ers may have zeroed in on Reggie Williams, the outstanding receiver from Washington, with their first round pick. At a shade under 6'4", 229 pounds, Williams has the size, body control, quickness, and speed (4.5) to be a legitimate number one target. And let's not rule out the 49ers nabbing another wide receiver in the 2nd or 3rd round.
Despite what you read in the papers, the 49ers have every reason to be optimistic. They are rebuilding, but they are not starting from scratch. The 13th ranked defense returns intact, minus Bronson, and will be improved. The addition of Brandon Whiting, a 285-pound run-stuffing defensive end who can play inside on passing downs, is just what the doctor ordered. We may yet get Jamie Winborn back. If the 49ers spend their 1st round pick on a defensive tackle and their 2nd round pick on a free safety, the defense will be phenomenal. Concerns on offense will prevent them from doing so, but how many rebuilding teams are two draft picks away from a top-10 defense?
Last year's 5th ranked offense should still be one of the better units in the league. Drafting Reggie Williams should partially mitigate the loss of Owens. Drafting another receiver in the 3rd round would offset the loss of Streets. The 49ers should have no trouble using two of their mid-round picks to draft a starting offensive lineman and a quality backup. But more importantly, offense is about scheming, route-running, precision, timing, and play-calling. The 49ers improved dramatically in the second half of the season as Erickson became more involved in game-planning and play-calling, and should continue this trend into the new season.
Concerns remain, understandably. Our depth has been compromised this offseason more than anything. An injury to Kevan Barlow or Andre Carter could derail the entire train. But there are just as many positive signs as negative ones, and most teams in the NFC have problems and concerns every bit as serious as ours.
Free agency does not make or break football teams. The draft does. We're drafting 16th this year as opposed to the mid-twenties. Donahue and Erickson are particularly good drafters. They're familiar with the college ranks having spent the majority of their careers there. It will take time for receivers and defensive linemen to develop, but fear not! Two strong drafts and we're right back in the thick of things!
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